David Leggat: Defeat by South Africa raises the old questions again

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Things went wrong for New Zealand even before a ball was bowled at Centurion yesterday.

The young South African woman singing the national anthems got through the trickier first half reasonably well. Then she came to the final line: "God Save New Ze-ee-land."

Huh? What did she know that we didn't?

Daniel Vettori, standing at the head of the New Zealand line, had a quiet smile. As things transpired, not even He - God, not Dan - could have helped out as New Zealand tumbled in grimly familiar fashion against the hosts.

South Africa were in a jam. After losing to Sri Lanka, they were a defeat away from being toast. Not making the semifinals would have been hugely embarrassing for the world's No 1 rated ODI side, and on their own turf.

Thankfully for them, they only had New Zealand to contend with.

In 17 ODIs in the republic before yesterday, New Zealand had won just two and lost 13 so their implosion scarcely made a ripple on international cricket's seismograph.

But the manner of the loss raised all the old questions.

The bowlers had little chance of defending 214, given a poorly chosen XI, providing South Africa's batsmen were smart, which generally they were.

New Zealand's top three, Brendon McCullum, Jesse Ryder and Martin Guptill, were not. All played poor strokes for their dismissals, Guptill's continual problems controlling his pull shot being especially frustrating.

Should McCullum stay at the top of the order? Remember it wasn't so long ago New Zealand's No's 6, 7 and 8 - Jacob Oram, McCullum and Vettori - was as good as any in the game.

That's been lost for two reasons: McCullum's promotion to a fire-from-the-hip opener and Oram's combination of fitness and form problems.

So what about McCullum dropping back to, say, No 6? He'll strongly oppose it. And he'll point to an average of 38.22 in his current run at the top, which dates back to November 2007, to argue his case.

But a positive counter-argument would have it freshening him, and offering a different batting focus.

Once Oram was ruled out, Vettori should have gone up the order, and offspinner Jeetan Patel been included. Instead, the backup wicketkeeper Gareth Hopkins played, but didn't keep.

The pitch helped the spinners from the start. Alarm bells must have been clanging in New Zealand heads when they saw left arm spinner Roelof van der Merwe getting sharp turn and bounce inside the first hour and a half.

Van der Merwe and offspinner Johan Botha put a hold on the run rate and that was that.

A real opportunity was missed. The Wanderers pitch at Johannesburg for New Zealand's game against Sri Lanka tomorrow night is likely to favour the fast-medium bowlers.

And here we come to one bright spot. Shane Bond's figures, one for 51 off 10 overs, don't make fine reading. But he worked up good speed, occasionally above 145km/h, and deserved far better.

He's not a container, he's a wicket taker. In a situation where New Zealand needed 10 wickets, Bond was rightly mortified to see Grant Elliott stand at third man and wait for the ball to come to him on the first bounce, making no effort to step forward and attempt a catch.

That epitomised a lack of vim in their cricket, of boldness in their selection. Next it's Sri Lanka, who flogged them a couple of weeks ago. If they don't sharpen up, by the time they face England on Wednesday, their flights home will have been booked.

- NZ Herald

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